From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 105, Number 47 - November 20, 2008
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

State water issues discussed at forum

by Stephen Crane

Global warming, glaciers and the Green River Basin — all are united by a critical issue confronting Wyoming legislators and regulatory agencies.

And all three were principal topics discussed during the two-day Stroock Forum, held at Rendezvous Pointe last weekend and entitled “Water Management Challenges in the Upper Green.”

“I really do think this is a discussion that is going to be a part of this state,” said Governor Dave Freudenthal, who gave opening remarks to a room packed with well over 100 people. “It has been for the history of the state. And it’s going to be a part of the discussion going forward. It has implications on a multi-state basis with regard to how much water is going to be available.”

The Green River is a primary headwater for the Colorado River system, meandering down the Upper Green River Valley. These waters ultimately flow into the Fontenelle Reservoir before continuing their journey into Utah, where they join the Colorado River and continue south through the reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Due to the magnitude of this water supply, intrastate water rights have been hotly contested for decades, resulting in the formation of water compacts that dictate water consumption for the seven states that share in the supply.

While states in the lower basin, including Arizona, California and Nevada, share about 7.5 million acre-feet of water, the four states in the upper basin split around 4 million a-f. “The fundamental issue that we deal with in this day in age on the Colorado is that the water supply that we are experiencing in recent years is not what we saw in the years from 1906 to 1922,” said Pat Tyrrell, the Wyoming State Engineer, “which was the historic record available to the crafters of the compact.”

During that time period, water flow was at higher levels than is seen today. And just as problematic, consumption of that water is now at higher levels than it was when the compact was formulated.

Add to these factors the climate changes that have been occurring in recent decades. “I want to emphasize that Wyoming and the western United States are extremely vulnerable to any kind of climate change, whether human caused or otherwise,” said Steve Gray, a climatologist for the state of Wyoming. “The bottom line is that small increases in temperature will very likely have major impacts on water resources in the state.”

In Wyoming, 70 percent of the state receives an average of 16 inches of precipitation or less per year, making it the fifth driest state in the U.S. Many regions of the state, and particularly the Green River, rely heavily upon the precipitation that accumulates in the mountains, which provides vital spring runoff.

“If something happens to that snow, or happens to those mountain water sheds that provide that water,” said Gray, “it’s going to have major impacts for not only the high mountain water sheds themselves, but for areas far on down the stream.”

The last 10 years have been below the annual precipitation levels, not only in rainfall, but in snowfall as well, and even the mountain glaciers have been feeling the effect. “The glaciers are melting back, and not because of global warming,” said Charles Love, a geologist with Western Wyoming Community College. “They’re melting back because they’re being starved to death. And by starved to death, I mean they’re not getting the winter snow pack that they used to get.”

Based on a five-year cumulative average, 1940 saw a 200 percent rise in snowfall, compared to the averages of prior years. And in 1943, it was 500 percent.

“17 and a half feet of snow fell in Pinedale in 1943,” said Love. “Now the five-year average changed after that and stayed higher all the way up until 1984. You’ve been in a snow drought since 1984.”

The result is that in the past 24 years, the snow pack that accumulated on the glaciers of the Wind River Range has been melting at a steady pace, as less annual snowfall increased glacial exposure in the summer months.

“You’ve got roughly 78 years of melting going on here, and thousands of acre-feet of water coming to this instream flow,” said Love. “So (the glaciers) are imploding. The timberline has risen about 150 feet.

“And it’s my prediction that Knife Point Glacier, which used to be about three miles long is going to disappear within the next 30 years. You’ll see it die. And then you will only have the current spring melt.”

This prediction makes the Green River water resource all the more vital as a future supply, not to mention the growing demand from states farther down the basin, where populations are predicted to increase by as much as 10 million in the coming decades.

“The growth in this country is so concentrated in areas in which there isn’t any water,” said Gov. Freudenthal. “And they insist on having swimming pools and yards. If the Lord wanted those in the desert, he would have put them there, but he didn’t. So the notion that we’re going to take water from Wyoming to support them is going to continue to be a problem.”

States along the Colorado River Basin have already experienced a serious threat of dwindling reserves, when, in 2005, water levels in Lake Powell were 145 feet below “the full pool,” which nearly prevented hydroelectric production from taking place.

“What it caused us to do here in Wyoming was to get on the cocktail circuit in this basin and start talking about, if we get to a point where we have to invoke the dark side of the compact,” said Tyrrell. “And that dark side, as I refer to it, is requirement for curtailment.”

This serious threat was taken to the federal government, which ultimately helped create a lower basin shortage criteria.

“Folks in the lower basin had always been able to look at Lake Powell and see seven to eight and a half million (acre-feet) come down every year, drought or not,” said Tyrrell. “Everybody above Lake Powell saw regulation.”

After 2005, an “equity argument” was initiated to protect both Lake Powell reserves and the upper basin states. This also prompted the seven Colorado River Basin states to seek “water supply augmentation.”

“The augmentation lies, in my mind, largely in the lower basin, with Arizona, with Nevada,” said Tyrrell. “And for a couple of reasons.

“Number one, they’re at their full use. If they want more water, they better augment the river. And secondly…they’ve got the money to do this. Certainly, they’re the ones who need the water.”

These states have examined a host of possibilities to augment their water supplies, ranging from the feasible to the far-fetched, including towing ice burgs down the Pacific coast in insulated liners.

More likely is the desalination of ocean water, which is becoming an increasingly viable option.

“There is some discussion now of desalination plants in Mexico or on the Pacific coast,” said Tyrrell. “And I think it’s an eventuality.”

Drilling is currently taking place beneath Lake Mead as well that will tap into the underside of the lake, thereby establishing a water pipeline that runs three miles beneath the lake bottom. Conservation initiatives are also taking place, which provide incentives for conscientious water management.

But the ocean still remains as the most practical solution for future water shortages. “Sooner or later, the lower basin has to go to the ocean,” concluded Tyrrell. “If we were to quit using water today, and Colorado quit using water today, and Utah and New Mexico, even a full river will not satisfy Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles and their irrigation requirements. So it doesn’t matter to them whether we maintain our apportion or not because they’re going to have to go to the ocean by 2030 or 2040.

“Our job is to keep what we have, develop what we have, until that time that it’s less economic for them to fight Wyoming, Utah and Colorado for water than it is to go to the ocean.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Gov. Freudenthal, who pointed to the future consequences of both population growth in the lower basin and the climate changes that are now occurring “It has particular implications for us in how we’re going to manage water, both for internal utilization in Wyoming and in order to protect the water that we do have against the interests of other regions.”

See The Archives for past articles.

Copyright © 2008 Pinedale Roundup
All rights reserved. Reproduction by any means must have permission of the Publisher.
Pinedale Roundup, PO Box 100, Pinedale, WY 82941   Phone 307-367-2123